You might find yourself finishing a great book and thinking, ‘Wow, I wish they would make it into a film’. Or perhaps you’ll fall in love with a film, only to discover it was based on a book – allowing you the option of reading in more detail the exploits of your favourite characters. However, the transition of a much-loved tale from text to screen is often fraught, dividing fans. Will they do my favourite book justice? Will the hero look how we imagined? Will they cut essential subplots and intricacies to save time?
A filmmaker may never face such high pressure as when he or she must take on the expectations of a legion of pre-existing fans; they’ve already read the story and have a very specific notion of how it should be filmed. The producers of I am Legend made the cardinal sin of changing the ending to the dystopian tale (dramatically altering the underlying meaning of the entire story) and came under intense scrutiny from critics and fans of the book alike. The Hunger Games adaptations, on the other hand, have so far been met with positivity from critics and fans alike. But this type of criticism repeatedly resurfaces: Can a film adaptation ever really capture the reader’s imagined universe?
Should filmmakers even try? If a book has already been a best-seller it stands to reason that a film adaptation will be popular. Fantasy universes are actualised with CGI and faces are given to previously only-imagined heroes, to emblazon posters on bedroom walls. In short, if a movie managed to do its book justice, box office success is usually guaranteed. Indeed, many of the most explosive box offices successes of the last decade were originally novels.
And so, which novels best – or at least, most successfully – made that tricky transition from page to screen? In this list we count down 10 of the highest-grossing film adaptations of books but, of course, in order to avoid a couple of hugely successful franchises dominating, were a series is concerned only the highest grossing film of that series has been considered.
10. Life of Pi (2012): $609 million
Eyebrows were raised when it emerged that the classic, fantastical tale of a boy stuck in a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger called Richard Parker would be cinematized. Those who had read the book before wondered how on earth a film could capture the dazzling imagery of this unusual tale, but luckily director Ang Lee was not put off and this Oscar-winner made it to the silver screen. The most-nominated film of the Academy Awards in 2012, this CGI masterpiece currently ranks at #84 of the highest-grossing films of all time.
9. Forrest Gump (1994): $677.4 million
This 90s classic was originally a 1986 novel by Winston Groom. As in the film, the novel takes us through recent American history via the perspective of the simple but truthful title character Forrest Gump. Those who have caught the flick will be unsurprised at its #66 spot on the list of highest grossing movies. Often shown on TV nowadays, this classic supplied us with ever-quotable lines such as ‘life is like a box of chocolates’ and the heart-breaking, ‘Mama always said, dying was a part of life. I sure wish it wasn’t.’ Tom Hanks immortalised this fictional character on-screen in one of the most memorable roles of his career.
8. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005): $745 million
Who could resist the look of wonder on Lucy’s face as she takes her fist steps into the wintery wonderland that is Narnia? This epic retelling of C.S. Lewis’ much-loved children’s story marks the first movie-franchise on the list. The first instalment ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’ has been by far the most popular of the series (#55 highest grossing) thus far, however ‘Prince Caspian’ and ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ have each achieved modest success. With a new instalment, ‘The Silver Chair’, in the making fans of the fantastic world through the wardrobe have plenty of adventures to look forward to yet.
7. The Da Vinci Code (2006): $758.2 million
Hanks’ second movie on our list, Dan Brown’s cryptic mystery was already breaking sales records when it was released as a book in 2003, so it’s little wonder the star-studded film adaptation proved so popular. The Parisian-based thriller led readers and film-goers alike to question their perception of historical facts, radically twisting the factual and fictional with notions of a 2000 year-old religious cover-up. One of Brown’s most imaginative conspiracies, the story received harsh criticism from the Catholic Church but the film was compelling for audiences internationally and now sits at #51 on highest-grossing lists.
6. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012): $829.7 million
Ah Twilight! Love it or hate it this franchise has captured the imagination of a generation of teenage girls, revitalising the old damsel in distress trope. Vampires have historically been linked to the dangers of sexuality and Stephenie Meyer uses this atmosphere of sexually-charged peril as the backdrop of an obsessive love story between a teenage girl and a member of the undead. The films are filled with beautiful actors, intense stares and the choice between a werewolf and a vampire which divides fans. Perhaps when we put it that way it shouldn’t work – but for some reason it does, occupying four spots on the top 100 highest-grossing list.
5. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013): $858.4 million
After the hugely successful romantic fantasy pedalled in ‘Twilight’, the Young Adult cult explored Sci-Fi in Suzanne Collins’ ‘The Hunger Games’. Set in a dystopia where children must fight to the death as ‘tributes’ for their district, ‘The Hunger Games’ follows tenacious Katniss Everdeen (played by Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence) as she takes on the evil ‘Capitol’. The second instalment has already had significant box-office success (at #34 on the highest-grossing) and we can expect another entry to this list later this year when ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1’ is released. However, the franchise recently suffered a tragic setback when Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays the crucial role of the Game Maker in the series, died suddenly on February 2nd, 2013.
4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2013): $1.02 billion
After 10 years of waiting, fans of the Tolkien universe were rewarded with a return to the shire in ‘The Hobbit’. Although not originally structured as a trilogy, as Lord of the Rings had been, film-makers decided to divide the novel into 3 parts. This has been met with scorn by many fans of the book: It’s been argued that the plot is being stretched too thin, and the producers have mercenary rather than creative motivations for the extension. However, as box-office sales show, this has not affected its popularity so far – both films are already in the top 50 highest grossing (at #16 and #36). For those who want to go ‘on an adventure’ with Bilbo, Smaug and a host of dwarves, this fantasy flick offers the perfect escape into Middle-Earth.
3. Alice in Wonderland (2010): $1.03 billion
A Tim Burton visual-spectacular occupies the number three spot on our list starring, of course, Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp. Although the film diverges dramatically from the original plot as set out by Lewis Carroll, many have said that this adaptation is the truest thus far to the fantastic illogicality of Wonderland. Borrowing characters from both ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’, Burton adds a structure to the muddle of events absent from the original text, through the Jabberwocky. A masterpiece of visual aesthetics, it’s not only Alice who is the wrong size, as the Red Queen’s head is comically swelled out of proportion.
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003): $1.12 billion
It is surprising, given the impact of the films, that this trilogy was released within the space of only 3 years. Tolkien’s original text is reimagined by director Peter Jackson, taking viewers from the Shire to Rivendell and on to Mordor. But ‘One does not simply walk into Mordor’ as Boromir (played by Sean Bean) once said, Frodo and his companions must battle through three box-office hits before the ring can finally be destroyed. The trilogy was not only a commercial success, it was also critically acclaimed with the final instalment ‘The Return of the King’ winning all 11 of its Oscar nominations.
1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011): $1.34 billion
J.K. Rowling’s series of books took the world by storm; fans queued around the block at midnight to get their hands on the next instalment. It was probably inevitable that the film adaptations would be just as popular, with every film made holding a spot in the top 50 highest grossing of all time (and the final instalment sitting at #4). We watched as Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson grew through the series, fighting the dark lord as well as keeping up with their homework. The films are still much-loved around the world, despite the completion of the series three years ago.